• Published 4th Jan 2012
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The Flight of the Alicorn - Ponydora Prancypants



Rarity finds herself forced into an unlikely alliance when her airship crashes far from home.

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XXIII. The Heart of Fury

XXIII. The Heart of Fury

“Applejack!”

Rarity charged across the deck toward her friend, calling her name as she galloped over the slick planks. After a few steps, though, she froze. Buckaroo and Zips were injured, and Blueblood had nearly been run through by a spear-wielding pegasus seconds earlier. She could not simply disregard her shipmates in her excitement, no matter how great her elation at Applejack’s arrival.

She turned around and saw Buckaroo drag himself upright, leveraging his heavy body against the Alicorn’s rail while carefully keeping any weight off his broken left hind leg. Zips had regained consciousness, and now sat upright on the deck recovering his bearings. Rarity found herself unable to do anything but stand in place dumbly, torn between the urge to continue straight over to Applejack and the need to be there for her new friends.

“To their wounds I will attend,” Zinzi shouted, breaking Rarity out of her reverie. The zebra mare stood behind the ship’s wheel, her forehooves holding fast against the spokes. “Now go on and see your friend.”

“Are you certain?”

When Zinzi nodded, Rarity shot the other mare a look of deepest gratitude before moving forward. Even now, however, she could not simply run to Applejack; there was still one other victim of Tempest’s attack, and she would not leave him in his current pitiable state.

Blueblood still kneeled on four bent legs where Tempest had shoved him down, keeping eerily still and wearing a blank expression on his face. Rarity placed a hoof on his shoulder and gave the stallion a gentle nudge. “Hello,” she said. When he did not respond immediately, she called him by name. “Blueblood?”

The unicorn stallion blinked twice before lifting his chin to look at her, his pupils narrowing as he focused his gaze. “Y-yes?”

“Are you alright?”

“Oh. Yes, I am fine.” Slowly and deliberately he rose to his hooves. “Or least I will be. That pegasus would have killed me if you had not intervened.”

“Well, yes,” Rarity admitted. “Tempest is a bit unhinged, speaking as somepony he tried to kill previously.”

“Then I thank you for saving my life yet again,” Blueblood said. “Well, you and that pony in the ridiculous hat.”

“My friend’s name is Applejack. You have met her before.” Rarity narrowed her gaze at the unicorn stallion.

“Alright, yes, I admit it.” Blueblood raised a forehoof in mock surrender. “I remember her from the gala, and this time I promise to be completely genteel, if we survive. For now, I need to fly the ship through this maelstrom, and your friend looks rather desperate to see you.”

Indeed, Applejack had been waiting patiently all this time, no doubt wondering just what Rarity was doing with all these strange equines, and most especially with Blueblood. He smiled and waved her away with a forehoof, and Rarity briefly nodded her thanks as she dashed to her old friend. With wild abandon, she reared up and threw her forelegs around Applejack’s neck, drawing the orange mare in and squeezing her tightly.

She had so much to say to Applejack, and so many questions to ask, that she had scarcely any idea of where to begin. “I’m so happy to see you” was not very momentous, and did not come close to conveying the joy she felt. “How in the world did you come to be here in Gallopoli?” was relevant, but not an appropriate opener. On second glance, Rarity recognized the other airship, on which Applejack had clearly been conveyed, as the racing craft previously flown by Clementine Orange and her fellow citrus executives during the Alicorn’s Cup. The presence of Clementine’s airship, however, only raised more questions.

Who was flying the ship? Who had accompanied Applejack? Did her friends have any knowledge of the plot against Equestria, and the machinations at work in Canterlot? There were so many questions, but ultimately, only one was simply too pressing to delay further.

“Applejack, darling, how in the world are you keeping that hat from blowing away in this horrendous wind?” Rarity asked. As always, Applejack wore her brown, wide-brimmed stetson over her straw-colored mane. Rarity’s couturier’s eye had been drawn at once to the the headgear, which should have been picked up by the powerful wind and carried off in a heartbeat, but which remained stubbornly in place atop her friend’s head. She simply had to know Applejack’s secret.

The orange colored farmer leaned back from the embrace the two ponies shared and stared at Rarity with a look of incredulous wonderment. “All of Equestria thinks you’re a goner, then we find you out here in the middle of some kinda freaky storm along with that hoity-toity prince from the gala, squarin’ off against a bunch of griffons in a giant airship, and the first thing you think to ask is how my goldurn hat is stayin’ on my head? Consarnit Rarity, t’ain’t nothin’ ever gonna change with you.” Applejack then grinned and hugged Rarity even tighter, imperiling her continued breathing. “And I wouldn’t have it no other way.”

Rarity looked into her friend’s green eyes, and the moist film over them shocked her, used as she was to Applejack’s normally unshakeable stoicism. The sight was too much, and she burst into tears of her own before burying her snout into Applejack’s shoulder.

“Hey now sugarcube, it’s all gonna be okay,” Applejack said softly, gently stroking Rarity’s mane behind her left ear. “We got you back now, and we’re not lettin’ you get lost again.” The two mares held each other in silence for a brief moment, before Applejack spoke again, this time in her normal husky twang. “Oh hay, I almost forgot your silly question. I let Twilight put a stick-to-it spell on my hat, against my better judgment. Only I can take her off now, so she ain’t blowin’ nowhere. I couldn’t just leave her behind, you know.”

As Applejack was concluding her explanation, a glowing point of energy suddenly appeared in the air a half length away, and both mares instinctively jumped back as the nascent teleportation spell blossomed into brilliant incandescence. After a loud “pop,” Rarity found herself staring at Twilight Sparkle as the lavender unicorn shook her head to clear away the momentary disorientation of teleportation.

“Speakin’ of …” Applejack finished.

“Twilight!” Rarity launched herself at her other friend, and soon all three mares were locked in a tight embrace.

“I knew it!” Twilight Sparkle exclaimed, jubilant and tearful at the same time, and she pressed her wet cheek against Rarity’s own. “I knew you were alive! Oh, Rarity, I’m so happy to see you!”

Rarity said nothing, but for a moment simply basked in the warmth of her friends’ closeness. She could only afford herself a taste of bliss though - ponies were fighting and dying around her, out in the storm. After allowing as much contentment as she dared, she disentangled herself from the others.

“My darling friends, there are simply no words to describe how happy I am to have you with me. It is almost impossible to believe you are truly here. I only wish this reunion could been under circumstances more pleasant and less perilous, and I’m certainly sorry that you’ve been dragged into this mess with me.”

“Well I ain’t sorry at all,” Applejack replied. “We’d have gone after you come Tartarus or torment. You don’t know what it was like, losin’ you.”

“It was so awful, Rarity,” Twilight said. “When Princess Celestia told us you …” She choked on her words, unable to continue.

“We all just fell apart after we got the news,” Applejack finished. “It was a mess. We were blamin’ each other, fightin’ for no reason. It felt like my heart got cut out. Then, outta nowhere, this here smart cookie got it in her head that you were still with us, waitin’ down here for somepony to come find you.” She playfully rubbed a hoof against the top of Twilight’s head. “I wouldn’t have believed it, but I never saw a pony more sure of herself before, and I know Rainbow Dash.”

“Well, it wasn’t as though I used the scientific method. In fact, I don’t really know how I knew you were alive. I just knew,” Twilight said, smiling. “I couldn’t have been more certain if you had shown up to tell me yourself.”

Rarity had to chuckle at that, given that she had relayed the message to Twilight, if not quite in the flesh. “Oh girls, have I ever got a story to share with you!”

“Story time is going to have to wait!” Blueblood shouted from behind the Alicorn’s wheel. “Right now, just hold on!”

The deck tilted as the Alicorn turned sharply to port, and Rarity hurried to cling to the starboard deck rail, beckoning Applejack and Twilight Sparkle to do the same. Her eyes grew wide as she saw the reason for the abrupt maneuver: Karroc’s enormous warship was plowing through the storm, barreling directly toward them. Worse, the enormous airship’s bow-mounted cannons were already firing.

One shell burst in the air no more than a hundred lengths away in a deafening blast of smoke, flame, and shrapnel, and Rarity realized that it would not take a direct hit to bring down the Alicorn; if the griffons’ aim improved even a bit, a closer blast would tear the ship’s balloon to ribbons, and perhaps its crew as well. The Alicorn continued to turn and climb away, and she could see that the ungainly citrus-themed airship on which Applejack and Twilight had arrived - Refresh, she finally remembered it was called - was doing a fair job of matching Blueblood’s maneuvers.

“Who is flying that ship?” Rarity asked. “I recognize it from the Alicorn’s Cup, but surely a skilled pilot like that cannot be one of the businessponies from the citrus conglomerate.” She cringed as another projectile exploded in the air, though this blast was a bit further away than the last. “The rest of the girls are not over there, are they?”

“Nah, it’s just me and Twi,” Applejack replied, clinging desperately to the railing and looking as though she might be sick at any moment. “We hitched a ride on a produce hauler outta Canterlot, and when we got here, who should we find but my cousin Clementine Orange. She lent us her ship to go lookin’ for you - said you’d done her some real kindness, and she owed you one. Even after all her friends flew back home, she stayed down here helpin’ out with the search parties.”

“But she isn’t flying the ship,” Twilight said, appearing only slightly more comfortable than Applejack.

“That right,” Applejack confirmed. “Clementine left to find shelter from the storm, but she’d found a nice feller name of Elbow Grease to fly the ship for her. Nother friend of yours, turns out.”

“Really?” Rarity mused. Applejack and Twilight Sparkle nodded in unison.

This was a bit of a surprising wrinkle. Rarity had already learned that Windlass was back in Canterlot, and presumably Fancypants too. Tempest, on the other hoof, had remained in Gallopoli “helping” the search efforts, and now she had learned that Elbow Grease had stayed behind as well. She hated that she no longer felt the automatic urge to trust, but she could not overlook the fact that Fancypants’ engineer could have remained with Tempest because he was working with the treacherous pegasus. The fact, however, was that he had flown her friends up to meet her just in time to stop Tempest from killing Blueblood. For now, she had to trust that he was on her side.

“Everypony!” Blueblood called out. “I cannot avoid that ship forever. The center of the storm is contracting, and soon there will not be anywhere left to fly out of range of those cannons. We must do something soon!”

Staring out into the storm, Rarity could see at once that Blueblood was correct. The magical cyclone swirling around Gallopoli was growing in intensity, and the impenetrable, towering black cloud walls that prevented the Alicorn’s escape were closing in on the town and those still trapped inside. The center of the storm already over the town was rife with lightning, fierce winds, and rain, but for the moment it was still generally survivable. She could not guess as to how much longer that would remain true.

The pegasi and griffons chasing each other through the storm were struggling against the weather just as much as the Alicorn and her crew, Rarity knew, and she could only imagine how terrifying it must be for them, zooming around lightning discharges that arced from cloud to cloud, angling for position, and colliding with unchecked ferocity. Those pegasi were ready to lay down their lives for Equestria, but what hope did they have? Even if they defeated the griffons in the air, Karroc’s massive warship seemed immune to the force of the storm as it lumbered through the sky, the griffons on its deck taking aim with their firesticks while its cannons thundered in time with the storm’s fury.

As the Alicorn passed dangerously close to the griffon warship, despite Blueblood doing his best to maneuver and climb away, she could feel in her horn the powerful pulses of magical energy emanating from the Heavenstone. The painful sensation made her groan and grimace, and she lifted one hoof to her forehead while steadying herself with the other to keep from swooning.

“Whoa there!” Applejack moved to help her. “I thought you were lookin’ a little beat up. You hurtin’ somewhere?”

"Thanks for noticing,” Rarity replied caustically. “At any rate, I have almost grown used to the discomfort. The spell that is empowering the storm produces a most unpleasant sensation. I imagine it must be especially bad for you, Twilight, given your level of magical ability.”

“No,” Twilight Sparkle replied, sounding surprised. “I don’t feel anything at all. What kind of spell is it? I'm not familiar with elemental magic of this power.”

“Yeah, maybe it’s time you spare a sec for a quick refresher on just what the hay is goin’ on here? We sure didn't expect this flyin' down to a resort town on the coast!"

Rarity was so taken aback by Twilight’s admission that she could not feel the malignant aura of the storm spell that it took her a moment to respond. “Well, there is no brief way to explain everything. I am not really sure where to start.”

“Well, gee, I dunno, why don’t you start with all them griffons shootin’ at us, and then get to the part about this confounded hurricane!” Applejack suggested.

“Well, alright, but this may be a lot take in at once,” Rarity replied. “The griffons on that ship are trying to start a war with Equestria by attacking the undefended southern reaches, and they are working with insiders in Canterlot who plan to use the war as an excuse to topple the Princesses. Worst of all, they have called down this storm by means of a magical diamond stolen from Canterlot.”

Applejack stared at Rarity, apparently processing all of this information. It was Twilight who spoke first.

“I’m sorry, but that can’t be right,” the lavender mare said, shaking her head. “I mean, I can understand the part about the war and the plot against the Princesses, but I know every artifact in the Royal Archives like the front of my foreleg, up to and including the most powerful magical artifacts of all, the Elements of Harmony, and there isn’t anything that could produce a storm like this.”

“That is because this magical gem was not taken from Princess Celestia’s vaults, but from Blueblood’s estate. The artifact is the Heavenstone. You have both heard of it, I am sure.”

“The Heavenstone?” Twilight Sparkle gasped, the sound audible even over the howling wind. “Adamas Firmamentum? But - but it’s been missing for over a thousand years!”

“Whoa, hold on now, even I’ve heard of the Heavenstone,” Applejack said. “But I thought it was just a fairy tale.”

“It is real, and it was missing, at least to some,” Rarity said. “Blueblood’s family kept it hidden from Princess Celestia for all those years, until it was stolen.”

“But this,” Twilight Sparkle gestured to the storm, “this can’t be the work of the Heavenstone. I’ve read everything in the Canterlot library about the old unicorn kingdom, and I know that the Heavenstone could only be used to express the will of all unicorn ponies to carry the sun and moon through the sky. It couldn’t be used by some crazy ponies and griffons to create a hurricane!”

“I do not know what to say, darling, except that it apparently can be used in such a way, and it is right now. I have seen the Heavenstone with my own two eyes, and I can feel its power as I stand here. I taught you how to copy my gem-finding spell, why don’t you reach out and sense its presence? Then you will be convinced, I am certain.”

“That’s a great idea,” Twilight replied, and a magenta glow enveloped her horn. After a few seconds, the glow disappeared, and a puzzled expression occupied Twilight’s face.

“And?” Rarity prompted.

“Nothing,” the other unicorn mare replied. “I can’t detect any gems up here at all, which ordinarily wouldn’t be surprising. Since we’re on an airship and all.”

Now it was Rarity’s turn to gasp. “Nothing? I don’t understand. How can you feel nothing even using the gem spell? I can sense the Heavenstone’s presence as plain as day! The raw magical power coursing through it - it is all I can do to not be overwhelmed!”

“I believe you, Rarity,” Twilight said gently, touching Rarity’s shoulder with a forehoof. “Maybe there is something to your spell that I didn’t pick up on when you taught it to me before. For now, if this is being caused by the Heavenstone, then we have a serious problem. You’re talking about the most prized and most magical possession of the old kingdom, with the power to allow regular unicorns to do what only the Princesses can manage today. This is magic far beyond even my understanding or ability.”

“Well, don’t you count us out just yet, Twi,” Applejack piped up. “The three of us have been in and out of some real scrapes before.”

Incomin’!

The friends jolted in surprise at Buckaroo’s shouted warning. To Rarity’s dismay, the warship was still firing on them, and she could hear the distinctive whistle of a cannon shell that sounded far too close for comfort. When the shell burst in the air no more than twenty lengths away, she could only squeeze her eyes shut and scream in anticipation of being blown to bits.

When that failed to happen, she opened her eyes.

Twilight Sparkle stood next to her, her horn glowing with such intensity that the normal magenta color of her magical aura was closer to a brilliant pinkish white. Out in the open air, a transparent shield the same color as Twilight’s magic sparkled and shimmered as the last vestiges of the explosion dissipated harmlessly against it. The magical force field was broad enough to form a hemisphere that protected the half of the ship that was exposed to the griffons, but it quickly faded into nothingness as Twilight sucked in a breath and released her spell. Fortunately, they were out of range once again before the griffons could continue their barrage.

“Darling, that was amazing!” Rarity exclaimed. “I have never seen, or even heard of a shield spell that could cover something as large as an airship!”

“Yeah, pretty nifty trick,” Applejack added. “And mighty timely too.”

“Oh, it was nothing, but thank you,” Twilight replied, blushing slightly. It never ceased to amuse Rarity that Twilight was still so bashful about her amazing magical prowess. “I actually learned the force field spell from a pony who is much more talented at it than I am. It's his special talent, and he can cast barriers and shields that persist even without the constant application of magic. He could cast a force field that would protect the entire ship, and it wouldn’t fade away.”

“Well, your shield was just perfect for this occasion,” Rarity said. “I cannot even imagine how difficult it must be to place a force field around a moving object like that. You saved the ship, and …” Her voice trailed off as a thought suddenly occurred to her.

“Oh boy, I know that look,” Applejack interjected.

I-de-a!” Rarity declared, a bright smile on her face. “Twlight, if you can cast a force field between us and that warship, we could get close enough to hit it with the Alicorn’s cannon.”

Twilight frowned. “I don’t think that would work. Shield spells are impermeable in both directions unless you have an appropriate counterspell to allow for passage, and I couldn’t cast the spell and the counterspell at the same time. Plus, I don’t know if I could even keep up a force field for long against the firepower on that ship. Even the strongest magical shield can only absorb so much force before it shatters.”

“So much for that,” Rarity said, crestfallen. It would do them no good to block incoming fire if Buckaroo could not shoot back.

“Now wait one pony-pickin’ second,” Applejack interjected. “Don’t give up on your idea just like that. Maybe you can’t fire your cannon through one of Twi’s force fields, but it seems to me she doesn’t have to put a force field around this airship for your idea to work.”

Rarity’s eyes lit up. “Ooh! If Twilight teleports back to Clementine’s airship, then she can cast a barrier spell in front of that ship.”

“And then I could draw their fire while you fly close enough to do some real damage!” Twilight Sparkle concluded.

“Better yet, have both airships charge straight at ‘em in a line,” said Applejack. “That way you don’t have to risk the griffons not takin’ the bait. Twilight can fly ahead with her shield in front while y’all keep right behind her. You get so close that their cannons can’t point at you, then Twilight breaks away and you tear ‘em up.”

“Applejack, that is rather brilliant!” Rarity declared. “I had no idea you were a tactician.”

“Course I am! Farmin’ is war, Rarity, and don’t you forget it,” Applejack replied, her expression deadly serious. “When you got varmints comin’ at your orchards from every side, and you’re outnumbered a thousand to one, if you ain’t got a plan, you ain’t got a harvest.”

“I suppose so!” Rarity agreed. “Now, let us inform the others so that we can make this work. I believe it is time you met my new friends.” Taking care not to let the bucking and rolling of the ship cost her her balance, she led Applejack and Twilight to the helm of the Alicorn, where Blueblood was furiously manipulating the wheel and controls.

“Ah, Applejack, I know you have met Prince Blueblood.”

“So I have,” Applejack said evenly, glaring at the unicorn stallion. Blueblood nodded curtly, but kept the majority of his attention focused on piloting the Alicorn through the furious storm.

“And Blueblood, this is my dear friend Twilight Sparkle. You may have noticed the barrier spell she cast a moment ago. It most likely saved the ship and all of us as well.”

“Your Grace,” Twilight said, and bowed almost imperceptibly.

“Hm?” Blueblood turned to scrutinize the mare who had referred to him by his official title. “There is no need for formality here, Miss Sparkle. But your good manners and that star mark of yours tell me you hail from Canterlot. If somehow we survive this I look forward to hearing about how the capital has fallen apart in my absence.”

“Just assume that last bit was a joke,” Rarity said quickly. “In truth, Blueblood has been much humbled by recent events, and I assure you he is sometimes passable company.”

“Yeah, sure, and I drink tea with the mayor of Trottingham every Tuesday,” Applejack muttered.

“In any case, Blueblood,” Rarity continued, “my friends and I have formulated a plan that should get us close enough to Karroc’s ship to destroy it, but we will need everypony to work together.”

She quickly gathered Zinzi, Zips, and Buckaroo, who hobbled to the helm on three legs, and hastened to make introductions. Rarity was pleased to see that Twilight and Applejack appeared immediately at ease with her newer companions, but then she was careful to not mention the nature of their joint profession. Buckaroo seemed particularly pleased to make Applejack’s acquaintance, going so far as to compliment her on her hat and offer an inane remark about his fondness for apples. Rarity hoped that this meant she would no longer be the object of animosity between the two adult stallions on the ship. First, though, there was a plan to coordinate.

“The only way for us to make it out of this storm alive is to stop the spell that is controlling it, and the only way to do that is to get to the Heavenstone,” Rarity said, practically shouting in order to be heard. “We cannot hope to board that ship; even with Twilight’s teleportation we would be shot the moment we appeared. Therefore, we must destroy it. The difficulty lies in getting close.”

“Difficulty as in impossibility,” Zips said. “We’ll be blown out of the sky.”

“Not so,” Rarity said. “Twilight will see to our safety. Twilight?”

“I will teleport over there,” Twilight pointed a foreleg to indicate the orange airship flying abreast of the Alicorn, “and project a force field in front of the ship. If you fly directly behind, this ship should be safe from harm.”

“Then when y’all get real close, bam!” Applejack added. “Y’all hit ‘em hard and knock ‘em down.”

“That all sounds well and good, but I think you grossly overestimate our firepower,” Blueblood said as he spun the ship’s wheel. “What good is a low caliber cannon against an armored monstrosity like that?”

Rarity frowned. She had no answer prepared for that question. In her mind, a cannon was a cannon, and she had imagined Buckaroo to be able to devastate Karroc’s ship, whether by targeting the balloon or the hull itself. After all, she had seen the damage the Alicorn’s automatic cannon had wrought back in the griffons’ jungle hangar.

“Well,” Buckaroo began, “we also got those two barrels of firepowder we stole. Those oughtta pack a wallop.”

“And how do you plan to employ them? Firepowder does not simply explode when dropped, and it is far too dangerous to attempt to create some sort of fuse,” Blueblood pointed out.

“Perhaps what would do the trick,” Zinzi suggested, “is your own unicorn magic. Levitate the barrel toward our foes, then one good shot and up it goes.”

“Oh my, that sounds terribly difficult and dangerous,” Rarity said, uncertainty creeping into her voice. She was fairly certain she lacked the strength and control to move a heavy barrel through between two fast-moving airships, through a fearsome storm. And the responsibility would be hers. Blueblood would need to concentrate on flying.

“You can do it, Rarity,” Twilight said encouragingly. “I don’t know any unicorn with better control over her telekinesis than you. I bet you could even teach me a few things.”

“Certainly I have fine control with little things like needle and thread, but not with a heavy barrel full of explosive powder!” Rarity protested. “Perhaps I can lift it, but to levitate it a hundred lengths through this weather is surely beyond me.”

“It is plausible at least, and better than nothing,” Blueblood said. “And I will help you. We have to stop them, and this is better than flying around in a shrinking shooting gallery, waiting for a lucky shell or a bolt of lightning to find us.”

That was certainly true. It was not as though they had an endless amount of time in which to consider alternative proposals, and every second of delay brought with it heightened danger for themselves and for the brave pegasi out there in the storm.

“I shall do my part,” Rarity finally said. “Now I believe everypony here understands the plan. Twilight, can you convey our strategy to Mister Elbow Grease?”

“Um, sure. Straight line. Shield. Something about an exploding barrel,” Twilight Sparkle said, sounding uncharacteristically befuddled. “Actually, I've mostly been trying to keep from being airsick. Does anypony have something I can write a checklist on?”

“I’ll go with her,” Applejack said. “I’m sure she could use the moral support to face down those griffons. That okay, Rarity?”

“Oh yes, as astounding and wonderful as it has been to see you both, I’ve grown quite accustomed to my friends here. I shall be just fine until we are all reunited again, and of course we will be.”

Applejack nodded. “Yes ma’am, we sure as sugar will. Twi, you ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” the unicorn mare replied. “Rarity, I’ll signal you with a flash from my horn when everything is ready on my end.”

“And I shall signal back to confirm,” Rarity said. “Good luck, both of you, and please do be careful. I simply could not go on if anything dreadful happened to either of you on my account.”

“You too.” Twilight smiled reassuringly, and then disappeared a second later with a pop and a flash, along with Applejack. Instantaneously, both ponies reappeared on the deck of the airship Refresh, flying just to port of the Alicorn. Now that Rarity could afford to take a closer look, she could see Elbow Grease standing at the airship’s controls, and she watched Twilight and Applejack quickly engage the engineer in conversation. But this was not the time to stand and stare.

“Zips, be a dear and help me retrieve one of the barrels of firepowder from the cabin, won’t you? In case I made that request too politely, the fate of the world depends on your alacrity.”

Zips gave her a sidelong glance, but then wordlessly hurried down the hatch, and Rarity followed. Together, with a bit of muscle and magic, they carefully maneuvered one of the heavy wooden barrels full of explosive powder onto the upper deck and over to the starboard railing.

“Right then. Buckaroo, we shall get your leg fixed soon, but in the meantime I trust you can still operate that cannon with three good legs? Very good. Zinzi, Zips, you and I will maintain a lookout to ensure that the griffons in the air do not get the drop on the ship while we are making our run. Blueblood …”

“As always, I will fly the ship. Yes, I understand perfectly well.”

“Of course you do. Now then, together, we have overcome obstacles that by all accounts should have prevented us from ever getting out of that jungle. Now, we have just one thing more standing between us and putting a stop to this conspiracy business once and for all, and saving a town full of innocent ponies.”

“The fact that the one thing remaining is an armored airship filled with griffons is beside the point, I suppose,” Blueblood said. “Oh, and they have an immensely powerful magical gemstone. Not that I am dubious of our chances, mind you.”

“Your job is just to fly the ship, as always, or don’t you remember?” Rarity glared at him. Over on the citrus pony airship, she saw three bright flashes from Twilight’s horn, and she signalled back in turn. “It is time. Now Blueblood, follow that airship.”

“You giving commands is akin to mutiny, you know,” Blueblood grumbled, steering the Alicorn into position directly aft of the bright orange airship. “I shall not complain, however, if you will grant me one request. I want to contribute a few words of inspiration for the crew.”

“Oh, please. Do let us hear them,” Rarity prompted, curious as to what sort of self-serving and long-winded remarks the stallion might have in store for them.

“Thank you. Ahem.” Blueblood coughed once to clear his throat. “There is no way out of here except through that warship. To all of you, I say: Tally-ho!” He thrust the throttle forward.

“Yee-haw!” Buckaroo shouted, and the others gave a cheer as the Alicorn shot forward, trailing just behind the airship carrying Twilight Sparkle and Applejack. Rarity merely smiled.

Karroc’s warship was not much more than a league distant, and someone on board had clearly witnessed the unusual maneuvers of the smaller airships, because the massive vessel turned to expose its port side and the battery of cannons mounted thereon. They were already being loaded, primed, and aimed, Rarity knew. Ahead, a transparent magenta hemisphere shimmered into existence like a giant glowing umbrella in front of Clementine’s airship. The griffons opened fire.

Rarity heard the the thunder of the cannons, and watched as Twilight’s magical shield shrugged off the first volley. She could no longer see the griffons clearly, as the boxy airship flying in front of her blocked her forward view, but she knew they would not let up. Twilight’s spell would simply have to hold.

“They’re coming from the side!” Rarity turned at Zips words, and followed the young stallion’s outstretched hoof to a quintet of griffons speeding toward them in a tight wedge formation.

“I see ‘em,” Buckaroo said, swinging his automatic cannon to face the attackers.

“Conserve your ammunition, and do not waste a shot,” Zinzi cautioned. “To attack the warship will require a lot.”

“Sorry, Zee, the ARC ain’t exactly a tack driver, and I can’t let ‘em reach our balloon. It ain’t the time to be stingy.”

Just as Buckaroo prepared to turn the crank that fired the weapon, Rarity used all the magical force she could muster to yank his foreleg back.

“Wait,” she cried. “Look there!”

Six Wonderbolts rocketed out of a cloud bank, zooming upward in a bladelike echelon, their forelegs extended, and they sliced through the oncoming griffon formation with merciless efficiency. The griffons, completely unprepared for the attack, absorbed punishing blows to their bodies and wings. Three of them tumbled from the sky, and the other two immediately turned tail and winged away in a panic.

The threat nullified, the Wonderbolts banked toward the Alicorn and took up escort positions, three on each side of the ship. Spitfire had led the attack, and she flew only a few lengths away, close enough to speak to Rarity and be heard over the storm.

“Thank you for the well-timed intervention!” Rarity yelled.

“You look like you’re about to try something dramatic,” the Wonderbolt leader shouted back. “I didn’t want to miss it.”

“Very astute!” Rarity yelled back. “We are going to bring down that airship!’

“Then count us in! I’m losing good ponies trying to fight these griffons hoof and claw, and the weather just keeps getting worse!”

“If you can keep the skies around us clear of griffons, that should be more than enough!”

Spitfire nodded and waved a hoof in acknowledgement, and maneuvered a few lengths further away.

Onward they flew, bearing down on the warship until its vast bulk became visible again, looming large and dwarfing both the Alicorn and Refresh. The whistle of cannon shells and the fury of explosions drowned out even the howling storm winds. Only seconds remained before Elbow Grease would break away, and they would have their one chance to act.

Rarity’s horn glowed with blue light as she took hold of the barrel of firepowder with her telekinesis. An odd but not unpleasant tingle ran down her horn, and the color of the magical aura surrounding the barrel shifted slightly as Blueblood added his own telekinesis to hers.

“Allow me to help, please.”

For the first time, she did not shy away from allowing his magic to commingle with her own. As intimate as it was for unicorns to allow their spells to mix, she truly did need the help, and besides, the feeling of his magic was not a bad sensation, really. Not at all.

“Thank you,” she replied. “It is going to be any moment …”

“Now!” Blueblood shouted. Ahead, Rarity saw Clementine’s ship climb and turn sharply, angling away and taking Twilight’s protective force field with it. The Wonderbolts scattered in every direction as well, and the Alicorn was suddenly alone and exposed to the griffon warship and its fearsome weapons. They were no more than a hundred lengths out now, and closing fast, but still not so far away that the griffon cannoneers could not get off one more volley. There was a loud crack and the Alicorn shuddered as one shell impacted the wooden hull and smashed clean through the other side.

“We’re too close for the fuses on their shells to have time to detonate!” Blueblood shouted. “The firepowder, now!”

Rarity’s heart was racing as she and Blueblood telekinetically lifted the heavy barrel of firepowder and heaved it out into space, pushing it out through the wind and rain and toward the griffons. She was close enough to see them clearly; a dozen or more stood on the other ship’s deck, some taking aim with firesticks, others merely staring at the ponies who so had charged them so brazenly. Karroc was there too, standing amidships and holding something glowing aloft in a foreclaw. It was the Heavenstone, she knew, sending forth beams of radiance that pierced the darkness of the storm and made her shiver with discomfort. With every bit of control and magical strength she could muster she pushed the firepowder directly toward him.

At the same time, Buckaroo furiously cranked the ARC weapon, and the cannon unleashed a stream of projectiles. Griffons dove for cover as he raked the balloon and deck of the mighty warship, until he finally connected with his target. The barrel of firepowder erupted into an enormous fireball, and Rarity could feel the intense heat of the explosion as the Alicorn blew past. She gripped the railing and looked back, hoping to see Karroc’s warship on fire and falling to the ground below. Instead, her heart sank.

“Oh no,” she whispered.

“It didn’t work!” Zips moaned.

The deck of the warship was charred, and strips of fabric hung off the gargantuan balloon where it had been riddled by Buckaroo’s cannon, but the scope of the damage was essentially insignificant. Karroc had not even moved, and now he appeared to mock them as they fled. Perhaps the barrel had exploded too far away from the ship, or perhaps the warship was simply too large and heavily armored, but whatever the reason, the end result was that the attack had failed utterly. Griffons were already flying up from the deck to patch the balloon.

Rarity was distracted from her despair by an annoying clicking sound, and turned to see Buckaroo ineffectually attempting to keep firing the automatic cannon.

“I’m out,” he said.

“We are all out, of that there is no doubt,” Zinzi said glumly. “That ship is simply far too strong. That should have been clear all along.”

“We are not finished yet,” Blueblood said, almost too quietly to be heard.

“How do you mean?” Rarity asked. “We have lost. That ship is invincible. Karroc will destroy Gallopoli, and then war will destroy Equestria, and perhaps the world with it. What can we do now?’

“We can ram the Alicorn straight into that monster’s heart,” Blueblood replied, looking directly into her eyes. “That is our final gambit.”

Rarity paused a moment, before realizing that Blueblood’s suggestion was not as imperiling as it sounded. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “Something this large is bound to deal a mortal blow to Karroc’s ship. We can simply set an intercept course, and then Twilight can teleport us all to safety!” She paused.

“We cannot all escape to safety,” Blueblood remarked, a touch of gloom in his voice. “You forget that I was never able to get any of the automated navigational equipment on the ship to work correctly. She will have to be piloted in by hoof.”

“Nonsense,” Rarity replied. “If that is so, we can use the other racing ship as the ram and fly out of here on the Alicorn. Surely the instruments on that ship are functioning properly.”

“Even if they were, the Alicorn is faster, its spars and prow are reinforced with the strongest materials, and the second barrel of firepowder is belowdecks. If this is going to work, it is has to be my ship.”

“But …”

“And I shall fly her in.”

“That’s crazy,” Buckaroo said.

“It may be the only way for us to see another day,” Zinzi pointed out.

“Blueblood, you are not thinking clearly. We must find a different way,” Rarity implored. “If you are trying to convince me that you are not as self-centered as you once were, then you need not resort to such a drastic measure. I am convinced.”

“It is not about you,” Blueblood said. “Any of you. This entire tragic situation is the fault of my family, and it is most of all my fault, for being blind to my brother’s ambitions. As captain of the Alicorn, I shall pilot her to her end.”

“I forgot, but you are right. It is not about me. Everything is always about you,” Rarity angrily retorted. “I thought you had gotten over this self-imposed burden of being ‘Blueblood,’ but I was obviously mistaken. Simply because your patrilineal line has seen fit over the years to go out in a blaze of glory as part of some misguided, self-destructive urge to destroy your family before the passage of time can accomplish the same thing, you do not need to follow that same idiotic path. You have your own life, your own dreams. That has to be worth something, Blueblood.”

“It is precisely because I have realized that my life can mean something that I must do this.” Blueblood spun the ship’s wheel around and turned the Alicorn until it once again pointed toward Karroc’s warship. A fair distance away, Rarity could see flashes of light from the deck of the Refresh. No doubt Twilight was trying to find out just what in Equestria was going on. “Now I suggest you signal your friend to come rescue you."

Rarity did not hesitate, but jumped forward to physically wrest the ship’s wheel out of the grip of Blueblood’s magic, and point the ship in a safer direction. “No! This is moronic, even for you! I will not let you do it!”

“Just save yourself already!” Blueblood shouted back, grunting as he attempted to regain control of the wheel. “Equestria needs you and the other Element bearers. Go home, and stop Windlass and Procyon, and then you and Fancypants can be business partners and change the world. That is how it is meant to be. My line was always meant to end, and now I know it must end here.”

“To think I believed you had gotten over your self-pitying delusions!”

“To think I believed you understood the universal truth that sometimes sacrifices must be made!”

“To think I had forgotten how annoying you truly can be!”

“To think I could have fallen for somepony so absurdly obstinate!”

Rarity let go of the wheel. “I … what?”

“Whoa!” Buckaroo shouted. “Look out!” Rarity sucked in a breath and turned, wondering what new horrible thing could possibly be happening. She looked just in time to see Tempest, battered but alive, streaking through the air. He was holding a small object between his forehooves, but she could not yet tell what it was. He made straight for Buckaroo.

“Not this time pardner!” the earth pony shouted, and ducked away before Tempest could land a blow on him. The pegasus, however, flew past without making a move toward Buckaroo. Instead, Rarity watched Tempest toss whatever it was he was holding into the open hatch on the Alicorn’s deck, and she gasped as a gout of flame blew out through the opening. It had been a glass bottle filled with liquid fire that he had been holding, and now he had doomed them all. Tempest did not slow, but kept flying in an attempt to escape the death trap that the Alicorn had instantly become.

“No!” Blueblood bellowed. To Rarity’s surprised, Tempest halted in mid air as the glow of Blueblood’s magic enveloped him, and he was pulled backward against his will and onto the deck of the stricken airship. The unicorn stallion had directed all of his effort into restraining Tempest, and without his input on the wheel the Alicorn fell into a turning, shallow dive. “How dare you? You would burn my ship and then just flutter away into the clouds like a coward? I finally dictate the terms of my own life, and you would even take that from me? What gives you the right?” Blueblood snorted and advanced toward the restrained Tempest.

“Uh, we’ve got bigger problems than him!” Buckaroo shouted. “That second barrel of firepowder is still down below, and there’ll be bits and pieces of us scattered to the four winds as soon as it catches.”

Blueblood ignored the warning, and kept his focus squarely on Tempest. “How dare you?” he repeated, practically screaming, his voice trembling with rage. If she had thought about it before, Rarity would have expected an enraged Blueblood to be more amusing than anything else, but the creature before her was frightening, looming over Tempest and practically frothing at the mouth.

“So finally, at the end, the royal worm grows a spine,” Tempest mockingly observed. “You’ve got me. I give up. Enjoy your last seconds in this world, as your precious airship burns around you, knowing that I have won and that war is coming.”

Rarity did not have time to pay close attention to the stallions’ exchange. If she could not get Twilight and Applejack to rescue them with all haste, she and everypony else on the Alicorn would momentarily be reduced to most unfabulous pony pieces. She ignited her illumination spell, flashed what she hoped was something close to the universal emergency signal she learned as a filly in magic camp, and frantically wished for her friends to comprehend the message.

She whirled around as a loud thud reverberated on the deck behind her, and she saw that Tempest had somehow managed to charge Blueblood and knock him onto his back, and he now held a forehoof against the stallion’s throat.

“Pathetic,” Tempest spat. “At least now you won’t have to witness the death of your friends or your ship, you pampered popinjay.” He raised the hoof, and Rarity watched his lean muscles tense as he prepared to bring it down on Blueblood. Her heart caught in her throat as she anticipated the blow, but then Blueblood mumbled something that gave Tempest pause.

“What?” the pegasus demanded.

“I said,” Blueblood began, his voice straining, “this pampered popinjay just beat you.” Blueblood’s horn glowed with an intensity Rarity had never seen before, and something big hurtled across the deck from the periphery of her vision. The massively heavy steel anchor that had been fashioned from the griffon harpoon flew straight at Tempest, propelled by telekinetic power that could only have been born of adrenaline and abject fury. Time seemed to slow, however, as Tempest reacted more quickly than any stallion of his age should have been able. He reared back, further, and then fell flat as the massive projectile passed over him, crashed through the deck rail, and plummeted into open space.

“Ha! You are still nothing but a national joke,” Tempest growled, and pushed off against the deck to stand. As he was attempting to rise, though, the anchor line expended all of its slack, and the heavy, powerful rope that Rarity had constructed went taut. The rope caught Tempest over his shoulder and slammed him hard to the deck, pinning him there. Rarity heard a sharp crack when Tempest hit the wooden planks, and she knew immediately that something had been broken. The stallion could not move, and his eyes bulged as he struggled to breathe.

“Not a very funny joke," Blueblood said, glaring down at his stricken opponent. “And now it appears we get to share the pleasure of going down with the ship together.”

“Look at the anchor!” Zips suddenly yelled, and Rarity raced over to join him at an unsmashed section of the deck rail, still mindful that the spreading inferno below meant the Alicorn could explode at any moment. She leaned over the rail to look, and realized that descending in a slow, wide spiral, they now found themselves almost directly above Karroc’s warship. The heavy anchor, dangling far below, connected with the huge balloon of the warship and its barb snagged the thick fabric. Strong as it was, the fabric was not stronger than the rope Rarity had engineered, and it could not resist the force of a speeding airship. The Alicorn dragged its anchor across the warship’s balloon, opening a terrible gash all the way from one side to the other and spilling precious lifting gas into the sky.

“It’s gonna catch on them supports!” Buckaroo shouted. “Find somethin’ to hang onto, quick!” The anchor traversed across the griffon balloon, straight toward the rigid metal ring that encircled the entirety of it, providing structure and rigidity to the great bulk.

Panicking, Rarity searched frantically, desperately, for anything she could use to secure herself, before realizing that tying herself to an airship about to explode in a million pieces was probably the worst possible thing she could do. Angry flames and thick smoke were pouring from the Alicorn’s cabin. It could not be much longer. Where in the world was Twilight?

When the anchor finally caught on the steel support structure, it was as though time itself stopped. The Alicorn jolted almost to a halt and the entire ship nosed dramatically. Rarity, being unsecured, did not slow nearly as abruptly. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise that she was not able to get a foreleg through the deck rail as she passed, because the force of her momentum likely would have torn the limb from her body. Of course, the alternative was hardly better. Rarity was thrown out into open space, and she began to fall. A second later, everything disappeared in a flash of light.

“Gotcha!” Twilight Sparkle jubilantly proclaimed as Rarity crumpled to the deck of the airship Refresh. “I saved all of you!”

“All except my ship,” Blueblood lamented.

Rarity turned left and then right, and saw Zips, Zinzi, and Buckaroo next to her, in addition to Blueblood. Without even taking a moment to thank Twilight for the rescue, she jumped up and hurried over to the rail where Blueblood stood watching.

Behind them, the burning Alicorn was forced by its snagged anchor into a tight, descending turn, and it was immediately apparent that the airship’s trajectory would shortly bring it directly into contact with the hull of the griffon warship. Moreover, the terrible damage that the Alicorn’s anchor had inflicted on the griffon balloon was clearly fatal. The warship was already beginning to fall.

Rarity watched, unable to tear her eyes away, as the golden figurehead of the Alicorn speared the thick hull of Karroc’s mighty warship. At the moment of impact, the remaining firepowder on the Alicorn ignited in a huge blast that must have caught Karroc’s warship directly in its own powder stores.

The effect was a new sun born amidst the battle over Gallopoli, an expanding orange ball of flame and superheated gas that chased away all shadow for the flicker-long span of its existence. The sound of the blast was enough to shake mountains to their foundations, and the shockwave hit Rarity like an unexpected buck to the chest. When the explosion dissipated, chunks of wood and bits of fabric rained to earth all around, and the sky was filled with glowing embers.

It was patently obvious that no living being could have survived the explosion. Karroc and Tempest were gone, and with them the thirst for blood and old vendettas that had been poised to sweep the world into war. Rarity could not help but appreciate the fact that the bitter foes had perished together in the end. Tempest had even achieved his revenge, in a very literal sense. The victory, however, was not for her to savor just yet. Nothing living could have survived, but some thing had. The Heavenstone was still here, still expelling waves of magic that fed the swirling storm; she could feel its presence as clearly as though nothing had happened. Until the stone was reclaimed, the storm would continue to wreak havoc over Gallopoli.

And there it was. Somehow, the Heavenstone was floating, right where the airship had been a minute before, hanging suspended in the sky and sparkling like the evening star. The gem began to pulse with a brighter light, and then, suddenly, it shone with blinding radiance. If the explosion of Karroc’s airship had appeared like a star, then this was a supernova. The world was filled with white light, and a pain worse than any Rarity had yet felt traveled like lightning down her horn, boring into the base of her skull. With that flash of light the Heavenstone vanished, and that was the last thing she saw. She collapsed to the deck as the world faded to black.

Some time, as her mind slowly drifted back into a state of awareness, Rarity pondered how long she had been asleep. It must have been a while, for her to feel so wonderfully rested and refreshed. In any case, she could feel warm sun and a cooling breeze on her coat, and the air smelled fresh and clean. It was a lovely day to be visiting the spa, she reflected. “Mm,” she murmured, “I’ll have the usual, please!”

“Uh, Rarity, the usual what?”

That harsh twang most certainly did not match the dulcet intonation of either of the darling twins who managed the spa. Rarity fluttered her eyes open to see Applejack staring down at her. Oh, of course. She was not at the spa. Nor was she in Ponyville. Rather, she was a thousand leagues from home, fighting for her life. With difficulty, she rose to sit on her haunches.

“Wha- what happened?”

“You passed out about four hours ago. We were worried at first, but you weren’t hurt, and you mumbled something about needing your beauty rest, so we just let you be,” a new voice said. Twilight Sparkle. Rarity saw her librarian friend standing beside Applejack, and she noticed that she was no longer onboard the Alicorn, but was on some other vessel. Oh, yes of course. The Alicorn had been destroyed, and she was on that tacky fruit crate that Clementine and the citrus ponies had flown. She remembered the explosion, and Twilight using her teleportation spell to save them.

“It is all over, finally,” Blueblood said, taking up a position beside her Ponyville friends. Blueblood … she certainly had unfinished business with him. She remembered what he had said to her, before Tempest’s second attack. Now, however, was not the time for that discussion.

“Where are we? Is Gallopoli safe?”

“The storm collapsed as soon as the griffons were defeated and the Heavenstone disappeared,” Blueblood replied. “The Wonderbolts remained behind to direct recovery and disaster relief efforts, but the damage to the town is far less than it could have been. We are on our way to Canterlot to confront my brother and his accomplices.”

“The Heavenstone!” Rarity gasped, and jumped to her hooves. How could she have forgotten what had caused her to pass out in the first place? “It disappeared because Windlass recalled it! As long as she possesses it, nothing is over!”

“I know what happened, and I have already told everything about the stone to your friend Twilight.”

“Yes he did, and after I saw it with my own eyes, I knew you were right, Rarity,” the lavender unicorn said. “That gem was a perfect match the descriptions of the Heavenstone that appeared in the writings of the great sorcerers of the pre-classical and early classical eras. What I still don’t understand is how what I witnessed was possible. His Grace - ah, Blueblood - concurs with me: nopony has ever been able to misuse the Heavenstone to exert his or her own will like this. I don't understand how this Windlass could be doing so.”

“Yet that is exactly what she is doing,” Rarity stated flatly, tired of having to argue what was, from her perspective, a plain and simple truth.

“Other unicorns have tried before,” Twilight went on. “According to the notes of Clover the Clever, during the Neverending Blizzard that predated the migration to Equestria, the original King Blueblood attempted to use the power of the Heavenstone to thaw the snow and ice and bring about spring. Nothing he tried worked, though, since most unicorns only felt bitterness in their hearts, and blamed the other types of ponies for their misfortunes. The unicorns’ desire to see the other ponies suffer was greater than their wish for the snows to melt, and the Heavenstone could not defeat the Windigos causing the storm. The king’s attempts to use the power of the Heavenstone without the support of his subjects’ will resulted in a case of magic poisoning that even Clover could not cure, and the king never recovered. The same thing happened when the royal unicorns attempted to use the Heavenstone to stop Discord during his first appearance. He had sapped Equestria of its will to resist, and without that will, the Heavenstone was useless.”

“But,” Rarity countered, “Windlass’ spells are working. You have seen it yourself. She must have enough support to enable her to harness the Heavenstone’s power.”

“I am not so sure,” Blueblood said. “All she has managed to do is remotely create storms, and weather control is already her special talent. The Heavenstone enabled ponies to control the heavens themselves in olden times. What she has done, however terrible, represents only a fraction of the power she could wield with the support of Equestria as a whole.”

Rarity paused, pondering the implications of Blueblood’s line of reasoning, and was struck by a terrible insight. “That means that her plan to gin up support for a war … dear Celestia! If she succeeds in swaying the hearts and minds of Equestria to back her aims, then she could finally unlock the true power of the Heavenstone.”

By now, Zinzi, Zips, Buckaroo, and Elbow Grease had gathered around as well, and all the other equines formed a semicircle facing Rarity.

“But we stopped the war,” Buckaroo said. “It ain’t gonna happen without Karroc and his griffons.”

“Perhaps,” Rarity replied, “but Windlass informed me that she had other plans in motion. Twilight, Applejack, I need to know what is happening back home. How serious have the tensions between Equestria and the griffon eyries become since the disaster of the Alicorn’s Cup?”

“It’s pretty bad,” Applejack replied. “That’s why R.D., Pinkie, and Fluttershy couldn’t join us to go lookin’ for you. They’re goin’ with Princess Celestia to the peace summit.”

“Peace summit?” Rarity repeated. “Princess Celestia?”

“Yes,” Twilight confirmed. “The Princess wants to preserve the peace more than anything, and she has offered to meet with the griffon leaders to discuss an amicable solution to each side’s differences. She proposed a grand summit in Stratusburg, right on the border. Rainbow Dash is going to serve as an ambassador of peace, and Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy volunteered to provide moral support.”

“Yeah, after, you know, what happened with you, R.D. felt so bad about not listenin’ to your advice about goin’ back home that she figured she had to go and try to make things right with her family and the griffons. This here summit seemed like the perfect chance to do that. Seems like every big shot with hooves, feathers, or both is gonna be there.”

“Oh no,” Rarity groaned. “I suppose that means Fancypants and Procyon will be there, as guests of the Princess. That will provide Windlass the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc. She knows that Karroc failed, and she is going to be doubly certain that whatever she is planning next will succeed in providing an irrefutable justification for a war that will sweep the Princesses from power. Tell me, when is this summit going to take place? Please tell me we have some time.”

“I wish I could,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “But it starts tomorrow, and Stratusburg is all the way at the northern border of Equestria. Everypony is probably already gathered there by now. Princess Luna is still in Canterlot, though. She can help us.”

“No! We cannot stop in Canterlot,” Rarity declared. “We must alter course and make for Stratusburg with all possible speed. If we cannot stop Windlass, then I fear for our friends, and even for the Princess. Whatever Windlass intends, with the Heavenstone in her possession, we cannot presume any limits to what she can do.”

“Then how do you intend for us to make a difference?” Blueblood asked.

“We can expose her,” Rarity replied. “And force her endgame. And if it comes right down to it, I will stop her.”

“You?” Applejack asked. “No offense, sugarcube, but Twilight said that thing’s magic was outside of her abilities, and I just don’t want you gettin’ hurt by bitin’ off more than you can chew.”

“Believe me, I know my limitations,” Rarity replied. “But I also know that somehow, for some reason that I cannot fathom, the Heavenstone has connected with me, and I believe that it does not see Windlass as its master. I have gone over everything I have experienced and learned about that stone a thousand times in my head, and the conclusion I cannot escape is that it is calling to me, that it wants me for something. It does not make a whit of sense, of that I am completely aware, but I cannot shake the suspicion that it is my destiny to confront Windlass for mastery of the Heavenstone.”

At that, Applejack laughed, a boisterous, loud guffaw.

“What could possibly be funny about that?” Rarity asked defensively. “I was being completely serious.”

“No, no, I know it’s serious, but it’s your cutie mark story,” Applejack finally managed. “Don’t you remember? You must have told it to me a dozen times. C’mon, what was it you said when you were a filly and your horn dragged you way out there in the sticks?”

Rarity fixed a blank stare on her friend.

“When you saw that powerful big boulder sittin’ there, about your destiny,” Applejack prompted. “Before you found all them gems inside and got your cutie mark.”

“I’m sure I don’t remember at this particular moment.”

“‘My destiny is a rock!’ you said, and in the end you were right; your destiny really is a rock!” Applejack burst out laughing again.

Rarity was not amused.